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SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION challenge audience at Karamu

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)


John Guare, author of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, which is now being staged at Karamu Theatre, is noted for his highly theatrical scripts.  His writing often tries to expand the theatre’s boundaries, which reflects his attitude that “the chaotic state of the world demands it.”

Guare’s 1990 play is based on the real life story of con artist David Hampton.  Hampton came to New York in 1981 and stumbled on an idea of how to get into the lives of famous people when he supposedly told the guard at the then famous Studio 54 that he was the son of Sidney Portier.   The ruse worked and after duplicating the idea at restaurants, he became friends with a person who gave him inside information which supposedly allowed him to weasel money and other favors from such personages as Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise and Calvin Klein.  Even after getting caught, when the SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION film opened in 1993 Hampton attempted to get into the producers’ party, gave interviews, and started to harass Guare.  Lawsuits and counter suits followed.

The title of the play comes from the unproven theory that everyone on the planet is connected to any other person through a chain of birth or acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries, thus there is no more than six degrees of separation between you and anyone else in the world.

The play’s core centers on the Kittredges, a wealthy art dealer and his wife, who, one night when entertaining are interrupted by a visit from Paul, a charming young man who claims he has been mugged, has nowhere to go, and has turned to them because their children, who the young man attended prep school with, had told him about the kindness of the family.  He also claims to be the  son of Sidney Portier.  Not only the Kittredges, but other families are taken in by Paul.  The goings on, including Paul’s bringing a hustler into the Kittredges home, the dealings between Flan Kittredge and a South African art dealer, conflicts with their children, a suicide, and the questioning of truth versus fiction, all emerge.

Karamu’s production, under the direction of Michael Oatmen, works on some levels, falters on others.  Oatmen, who is a local playwright, has re-imagined the play, changing the lead characters from white to black and Paul, the supposed son of Sidney Portier, from black to white.  The switch makes for some interesting thought concepts as Oatmen did not change the script’s references to the races of the individuals.

He has also added dancing, background music, and minimalized the set.  Most of these additions are unimportant and add little to the play and may distract from allowing the audience to get involved directly in the flow of the story line.

The major problem with the production is Oatman’s lack of realization that he is working with mostly untrained actors and, therefore,  needed to spend time teaching the necessary techniques for his cast to be, rather than feigning or pretending to be, real people .  This is a play, as is the requirement of realistic drama, requires that audiences believe that what they are seeing is actual. In addition, poor blocking decisions caused actors to presenting lines with other actors standing in front of them and in distracting clumps.

Dan Rand has excellent potential as an actor, but stays too close to the emotional surface as Paul.  He is believable, up to a point, but doesn’t probe deeply enough into the psychological underpinnings of the character, thus acting like rather than creating a bona fide Paul.

Both Rochelle Jones as Ouisa Kittredge and Kenneth Parker as Flan Kittredge have some nice moments, but, as with Rand, they never create authentic people, feigning reality, rather than living the parts.

Be aware that the production contains male-to-male kissing and nudity.  These actions caused some uncomfortable tittering and gasps from the opening night audience.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION is a well conceived script, based on a fascinating concept which gets an acceptable, but not mesmerizing production at Karamu. 


SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION continues through  April 7 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.